The first time your child drops a four-letter word that isn't milk or Dora can be a shock. You've spent the last few years helping him build up his vocabulary with the names of farm animals and G-rated ways to describe his feelings, but the term he chooses to throw around? The one that rhymes with duck. Before you turn bright red, know that most kids this age have no idea what words like this mean. And that you're not alone: Many parents of preschoolers are also dealing with a child who needs to be censored every now and then.
Three- and 4-year-olds are starting to realize that some words get a response from Mom and Dad -- which is exciting for a child who is just learning how to test the limits. And then other words, like butt, are just plain funny to a preschooler who's developing a sense of humor. But how you handle these bathroom blurts and F-bombs can either help tone down the language or backfire on you. "If you overreact to a certain word, it can make your child even more intrigued about using it," says Erin Boyd-Soisson, Ph.D., associate professor of human development and family science at Messiah College, in Grantham, Pennsylvania. We talked to experts to find out how to handle some of the awkward situations you may face with your child.
What's Going On Although your preschooler may be out of diapers, all things bathroom are still pretty new -- and probably often on her mind. "Children this age have spent a lot of time dealing with potty training, so it makes sense that they are fascinated by bodily functions and thinking and talking about them," says Timothy Jay, Ph.D., author of What to Do When Kids Talk Dirty.
How to Respond First, keep your cool. You don't want your child to think these are bad words, because there will be times when you'll need to talk about bathroom behaviors, whether it's asking her about an irregular bowel movement or helping her with uncomfortable gas. But if she has a potty mouth at the dinner table while your mother-in-law is visiting, Dr. Boyd-Soisson suggests telling her that people don't like to hear these words, so she will have to go somewhere private if she wants to say them. "Saying poop over and over in your bedroom loses its magic pretty quickly."
Also watch how you deal with bathroom issues. If you act grossed out when changing your baby's super-messy diaper, your preschooler is going to pick up on it and make a big deal out of it too. Instead, be matter-of-fact about discussing these stinkier subjects and change the topic when she does choose words that belong in the washroom.
What's Going On You may be surprised to hear your preschooler throw out a cuss you didn't think he even knew, but kids this age pick up on swear words quickly -- whether they hear one slip from you when a car cuts you off on the road or from a pal's older sibling during a playdate. "Even if they don't know what it means, preschoolers understand that they these words are emotionally charged," says Dr. Jay.
How to Respond The first time it happens, ignore it. Your kid will be less likely to say it again if he sees you don't find it amusing. The next time, stay calm and say, "That's not a nice word, and we don't use it in our house."
If foul language continues to be a problem, make sure you -- and the other adults around your child -- are being good role models. But if you do end up cursing sometimes, don't sweat it, says Edward Christophersen, Ph.D., clinical child psychologist at Children's Mercy Hospitals & Clinics, in Kansas City, Missouri. Briefly acknowledge your slip ("I should not have used that word") and carry on as if it didn't happen.
What's Going On Most of the time, preschoolers don't intend to hurt someone's feelings. If you don't let your kid have that extra cookie at dessert, she may just call you stupid or dumb because she knows it'll get your attention. Don't worry, you're not raising a mean girl. Many 3- and 4-year-olds are just starting to realize that it's wrong to say these words. In fact, lots of kids in preschool end up thinking that stupid is the bad S-word that they are not supposed to say. However, they still haven't mastered empathy so they don't always understand how certain words can make someone else feel.
How to Respond When an unkind word comes out of your child's mouth, step in and let her know that words like that are off-limits. Help her understand that it can make people sad and hurt when they are called names. Say, "How would you feel if Amanda called you stupid? Can you think of a nicer way to explain why you're frustrated?"
As with swears, make an effort to avoid using these words yourself. Encourage your child to use appropriate talk by praising her for expressing herself without resorting to mean words when she's upset. And remember that she's constantly taking in new information. Words that transfix her today will eventually lose their appeal.
Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Parents magazine.